Rachel Carson was an unlikely candidate to change the way Americans looked at planet earth. Yet this underdog, this bookish single woman who’d been writing seashore pamphlets for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, sparked the modern day environmental movement in the middle of the last century at a time when sexism was in full bloom.
She accomplished it with a mixture of rare skills and gifts. Her precise and lyrical prose is often justifiably showcased as the source of her persuasive magic. But what’s often overlooked is how fearless she was in the subjects she tackled and the way she explained them. In The Sea Around Us, she not only dared to explain the beginnings of the planet and all that was known and unknown about our oceans, but she brought her lush imagination to the equation.
During this week’s readings alone, she helped us imagine the theory that the moon was originally part of the earth that ripped loose into the sky with the gouge it left behind filling with centuries of rain as the earth cooled. She described an ocean where “life is scattered everywhere like a fine dust.” She brought into eerie perspective that half of the planet’s surface is covered by miles of water through which light has never penetrated, a place where creatures feed on the endless “snowfall” of sediments from above. She asked us to picture the likelihood of the Atlantic eventually rising another hundred feet and splashing against the foothills of the Appalachians
Rachel’s imagination brought a romance to her science writing that turned the masses onto subjects they wouldn’t normally read. But her ideas, her habit of thinking big is what coaxed people to think about things they wouldn’t normally contemplate.
Her righteous activist streak popped up, although quietly, in “The Sea Around Us” as well. Consider her observation in “The Birth of an Island” chapter in which she recalled how birds on the Galapagos Islands used to be so friendly during Charles Darwin’s days that they’d land on your shoulder and pluck hair from your head for their nests. Instead of an amusing aside, however, she used it to make a sharp point about how interconnected humans are with all life.
“But man, unhappily has written one of the blackest records as a destroyer on the ocean islands … upon species after species of island life, the black night of extinction has fallen.”
She wrote that statement twenty-three years before the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973.
Rachel ultimately threw her biggest punches in Silent Spring more than a decade after The Sea Around Us. But her convictions about the harm man was doing to the planet were rooted in her oceanic studies. And that’s also what gave her the power to write as assertively as she did when it came to exposing just how destructive pesticides were in a country reticent to heed environmental alarms, particularly from a woman author. Her voice was so unusual at the time that many readers had a hard time getting their minds around who exactly they were listening to. She reputedly received letters from both fans and critics alike who assumed, despite her given name, that anyone writing so forcefully must be a man. “Dear Mr. Carson ….”
Rachel’s underdog story and her ability to think big helped me think bigger on the novel I wrote about the sea. Just seeing her daring prose and imagination at work, helped raise the bar for what I was attempting to accomplish.
Does reading Rachel help you put your own work into a larger perspective?
If you’re part of the Shippensburg crew doing Rachel-related research this month, are there ways in which you can bring more imagination to your research, or perhaps ways that thinking big will make whatever you’re doing more fascinating and relevant?
Perhaps Rachel’s work guides or moves you in other ways. Or maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps it feels dated and cumbersome. Regardless, please share your thoughts.
And please don’t forget to click on and comment on "Field Notes from The Sea Around Us " (in the right-hand column below the image of Rachel Carson) as the Shippensburg program heats up this week. Let’s get the discussions rolling.